Communing With Pandas in Chengdu, China

I’ll admit it. I’ve always had a thing for bears. These furry – and seemingly cuddly – creatures have held a special fascination for me since I was a child. I remember my excitement the first time I laid eyes on an American black bear mother and her cub resting beside the main highway that traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s sad to realize now that the mother bear, with cub in tow, was lured there in search of human food from the tourists gawking from the safety of their cars, at that moment it was pure magic.

Over the years, I became more accustomed to seeing bears on hikes and backpacking trips while living in the US Pacific Northwest. My time spent in wilderness areas gave me a healthy respect for the keen sense of smell and great power of these creatures, and I was always lucky enough to leisurely view individuals from a comfortable distance. This included watching a large and beautiful honey-brown specimen for over an hour while it foraged for berries on a mountainside slope in Washington State’s North Cascades National Park.

Let’s Go See The Pandas!

More than a decade later while traveling in China, I had the good fortune of visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the country’s south central Sichuan Province. The research center has been ground zero in the fight to save this unique member of the bear family (Ursidae) from extinction.

Is there any human alive today whose heart doesn’t melt at the site of these adorable creatures? Photo: Henry Lewis

The personality of the giant panda is the polar opposite of all the frightening stories you may have read about bear attacks on humans in the wild. In fact, giant pandas are so widely recognized and universally loved that they were adopted as the symbol for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) when it was founded in 1961.

Since the 1970s, China has used panda exchanges as a diplomatic tool and means of cultural exchange with many international governments, especially with the West. These cultural exchanges – via major zoos – have introduced a generation of children to pandas with names such as Bei Bei, Gao Gao, Gu Gu, Lun Lun and Wang Wang. Just repeat those names several times out loud and try not to smile. I dare you!

Giant pandas are known for their playful antics. Photo: Henry Lewis

A few facts about giant pandas

Once roaming over a large portion of east and southeast Asia, wild giant pandas can now only be found in very small, remote areas of a mountainous region in south central China. Habitat loss and hunting nearly brought these playful creatures to the brink of extinction. The Wolong National Nature Reserve was established in the mountains of south central China in 1958 in an effort to protect and preserve the surviving panda population. The term ‘giant’ was also added to the name ‘panda’ to distinguish the large black and white bears from their smaller red cousins who share the same Chinese habitats.

STATUS: Giant pandas are listed as a ‘vulnerable‘ species due to their historically dwindling range and population, habitat loss and low birth rates both in captivity and in the wild.

NUMBERS AND RANGE: While exact numbers aren’t known, studies indicate there are between 1,500 and 3,000 giant pandas living in the wild in their narrow range in south central China.  The conservation news site Mongabay has stated that the wild giant panda population is 1,864, a number also used on the WWF website. As of 2014, there were 49 giant pandas living in captivity outside China in 18 zoos in 13 different countries. The good news is that the giant panda population has stabilized and is very slowly increasing, although authorities must remain vigilant as there are continuing threats to their existing habitat.

DIET: The only distinctly vegetarian member of the bear family, giant pandas are herbivores, with their diets consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. While they have maintained carnivorous digestive systems, giant pandas have evolved to thrive off the consumption of low energy bamboo. Since bamboo shoots are low in nutritional value, giant pandas must eat between 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 lb) of bamboo shoots a day. Needless to say, they’re either eating or pooping during most of their waking hours.

It’s surprising to learn that the much smaller red panda, with its uniquely different body type, is closely related to the giant panda. The lesser red pandas can be seen at the Chengdu Research and Breeding Center as well. Photo: Henry Lewis

The preferred diet of the giant panda consists almost exclusively of bamboo shoots. Since bamboo shoots are low in nutritional value, giant pandas must consume 20–30 pounds of this tough plant each day. Photo: Henry Lewis

The giant panda’s distinctive black and white patterns – in addition to their often goofy movements and personalities – have endeared them to both lovers of wildlife as well as retailers and organizations who use their cuteness as a marketing tool. Photo: Henry Lewis

The Chengdu Research and Breeding Center

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Center, located just outside the city, is the best possible place to learn more about giant pandas. In addition to the guided outdoor tours which allow guests to view pandas in a reasonable facsimile of their natural habitat, there’s a very good museum. The exhibits are all aimed at educating visitors about the lives of giant pandas in the wild and the challenges they face.

One of the presented facts that I found very interesting was that male giant pandas have short penises which make it more difficult for the sperm to reach a female’s ovaries for egg fertilization. Why would evolution have created such a mismatch, I remember muttering to myself? Add that fact to the animals’ famous reluctance to mate in captivity and you can see why the center’s mission is centered around their breeding program.

The smaller juvenile giant pandas were great fun to watch as a caretaker played with the animals shown in this photo. Whenever one of the young pandas would move away from the group and head toward the low fence where visitors were standing, a human keeper would walk over and gently pick it up by grasping it around its waist. Each time one was lifted, the young panda would emit the cutest little grunting noises to the delight of the human viewing audience. Photo: Henry Lewis

When I visited the center, there were two new baby pandas in its nursery. The building had been designed with a large window (photos of the babies were prohibited when I was there), allowing visitors to peer through the glass at these tiny creatures. Baby pandas are not as cute as their older parents and siblings.

They’re mostly pink, with slight hints of their darker markings and covered with a sparse layer of off-white fur. But, their most shocking trait is their diminutive size. Giant panda babies are proportionally the smallest baby of any placental mammal.

While adult giant pandas weigh between 200 and 300 pounds and grow to a height of four feet, cubs weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces) at birth, about 1/800th of the mother’s weight. For this reason, baby pandas at the center are often taken from their mothers and nursed inside the facility until they are large and strong enough to be assured of survival when interacting with a much larger adult.

Munch, munch, munch–that’s just about all giant pandas do during their waking hours. Photo: Henry Lewis

Occasionally, there’s a bit of climbing exercise between bamboo snacks. Photo: Henry Lewis


Taking a short break from playing and eating. Photo: Henry Lewis

Beyond pandas

According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, global wildlife populations have fallen by 60% in just over four decades, as accelerating pollution, deforestation, climate change and other man-made factors affect habitats. This dramatic decline includes such iconic animals as the African elephant, the orangutan and the polar bear.

As ironic as it seems, I observe people daily who say they love animals and clearly pamper their beloved cats and dogs. Yet they turn a blind eye to their own personal contributions to climate change and habitat loss, the very engines driving this latest mass extinction of Earth’s wild animal kingdom!

I’ll leave you with this quote from WWF UK Chief Executive Tanya Steele: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.”


Categories: Nature, TravelTags: , , , , , ,


  1. Yes, we know we are destroying the planet and ourselves but the people with money refuse to let us fix what we can. The problem is that we ALLOW them to continue the destruction.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi @hitandrun1964,

      I agree that those with the most wealth and power must start taking action or nothing will change when it comes to the climate crisis. However, we are all still a part of the destruction. Everyone (particularly Americans with a penchant for mass consumption) must start making dramatic changes in our daily habits: driving less or not at all, using less energy and water in our homes, and carefully considering every purchase we make. I don’t want to live in a world without all these beautiful creatures, and I know that sentiment is shared by you and many others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


      • I agree completely. As urban sprawl had moved out, more and more, cars are an absolute must. You don’t need a car in the city, with public transportation, but the suburbs are a different story. No one thought ahead, and they still aren’t. I agree with you. I don’t want to be here with out the animals and beauty either. Not at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting and informative post, Henry. The pandas are indeed cute and cuddly. The red panda is beautiful in its own way, but lacks the same cuteness as their black and white relatives. Considering that they spend most of their day eating, I wonder what their role is in our intricate web of life. Perhaps the secret is in their poop 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      Giant pandas are truly fascinating creatures and have adapted to changing conditions throughout their history. Unfortunately, over-population of humans–and the resulting loss of habitat–in their final range of south central China almost drove them to extinction. They have few natural predators (other than man), neither do they prey on other creatures. They’ve adapted to their limited diet of mainly bamboo shoots. And, yes, animal (bird etc) poop can be a very important tool for regenerating habitats.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating and informative. I didn’t know that Giant Panda’s sexual dysfunction was also due to its physical characteristics. I guess size does matter – lol!

    I’ve had several close encounters with black bears in the wild and only one of which frightened me. At about 8,500 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountains west of Mt. Whitney, a bear we likely saw earlier that day sniffed my face from the outside of my tent as I was sleeping. It scared the crap out of me, but the bear moved on shortly without incident. Its breath smelled really bad – like rotting fish!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Robert,

      That’s a great bear story, and yes, such encounters can be frightening. Try having a couple of pots in your tent for creating a loud bang next time, although I’d probably have remained still and hoped for the best as well.

      As for giant panda’s sexual dysfunction, it was fascinating to read about their too-short penises at the breeding center. I’d never seen that information anywhere else, but perhaps it was deemed too embarrassing to be released in the general media. Pandas do appear to be very sensitive creatures. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a wonderful post, Henry!
    I became a vegetarian when I left home. (I was vegan for a decade, but my bones were disappearing). Very small amounts of cheese I eat have saved me. I try to buy it at the Rowe Farms Shop, which sells free run eggs and cheeses from cows that get to live in the fields and eat grass… Free Run Cows.
    I don’t eat eggs, but my hubby does. I won’t buy them anywhere else. The shells are like rock.
    What I am trying to say is that I think I am doing something to help.
    Yes, recycling (exposed as a semi farce), planted Milkweeds for Monarchs to propagate in, don’t drive a car (walk or public transport) and my Art Gowns are made from trash. I turn trash into treasure.. or let’s say it’s beauty, anyway.
    I sign petitions. I go to rallies, demonstrations.
    Wonderful Panda post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds like you’re living a happy life Resa. I find that living with (and on) less makes me both physically and emotionally healthier. I love that you make your art gowns from trash! It makes them both more interesting and more original. My wonderful grandmother was the first person I ever saw use ‘trash’ for creating art. I’m SO grateful to her for being a living example of thrift and creativity.


  5. I was smiling while reading the entire post and looking at the photos, Henry.

    That’s the effect giant pandas have on me. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Like you, I have a special place in my heart for the bears of the Great Smoky Mountains … I used to spend a couple of weeks a year there, and I found it sad to see the couple of bears in captivity at Ober Gatlinburg. I still remember their names — Minnie & Peanut — though I haven’t been there in years. I love this post … have learned a lot that I didn’t know … and love the pictures! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Jill,

      Thank you for stopping by. I recall a Grizzly bear at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle that constantly paced back and forth over a span of 20 or so feet. It was very sad to watch. As solitary animals used to living in remote wilderness areas, bears don’t adapt well to captivity. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You told me once, but I’d forgotten that the Panda babies are so small. Awwww. I hope the mommas don’t miss them too much when they are taken away after birth until they get a little bigger. I understand the intention, but it doesn’t feel quite right somehow. What if doing this will cause the females to lose touch with the instinctual nurturing nature of nursing/feeding. Thanks for sharing all the adorable pictures.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Kristy,

      You’ve raised good points to which I don’t have answers. I was thinking about that very question while I was writing this post. That’s something I would definitely ask if I were to visit the Chengdu Breeding Center again. It seems that the very tiny babies are taken from the mothers to prevent accidental suffocation. That fact, along with the difficulty males have fertilizing the females’ eggs makes me wonder just how intelligent the process of panda evolution actually has been. On the other hand, since pandas have few predators other than man, perhaps nature was merely throwing a few stumbling blocks in the way to limit their numbers to levels that were sustainable based on habitat. Obviously, I’m NOT a biologist so I’m just speculating wildly here! What is clear, however, is that man hunted pandas to the brink of extinction. I’m SO happy there are surviving (and slowly increasing) panda populations in the wild. They are truly special creatures!


      • I’m glad they’re surviving too. They are so adorable! The thought of hunting them, regardless if it’s for food or fur is abhorrent to me. I recognize that my knee jerk reaction is a byproduct of a privileged life, one where food and clothing is easily accessible. But maybe one day in the evolution of man we can all live more harmoniously with other creatures beginning first and foremost with other mammals.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice article and lovely photos! I was here some years back and still haven’t gotten around to adding it to my blog library.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! Actually, I was at the Chengdu breeding center way back in 2003. From what I understand, they’ve continued to have success in breeding and successfully releasing some pandas back into the wild.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fantastic photos you got of the pandas at Chengdu! I’ve been there too but didnt get such great shots! You were so lucky in your childhood to see such creatures as bears! Something Europeans can’t imagine…encountering a real bear! They have been mostly wiped out in western Europe! British native bears became extinct 2000 years ago!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Peta,

      It really is such a special experience to see wildlife in their native habitats! I’m also happy to hear you were able to visit the panda breeding center in Chengdu. Sadly, many species may not survive climatic changes, thereby robbing future children of such delights. Thanks for your support!


  10. Love the pictures of these fascinating creatures. I hope posts like this help people realize what we need to do to preserve animals like the panda.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. What a great trip to see these amazing creatures! Thanks for sharing your close-up photos. Although zoos are not ideal habitats, they do serve the important role of educating the public about the plight of endangered animals and fostering love for them in the upcoming generations.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Interesting article. Your photos, as usual, are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve already commented from my Art Gowns blog, but this such an awesome post. I wanted to read it again.
    Thank you, Henry!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I enjoyed your post. It’s my first time to hear about small red pandas. I’ll def go to Chengdu to see the pandas ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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